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Afghan elite forces may lose US spy support

Special Forces rely on intelligence provided by foreign militaries, posing a huge problem for the long-awaited handover.

Last Modified: 09 Aug 2013 22:45
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Kabul, Afghanistan - "Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move," wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War. For Afghanistan's Special Forces, the 2,500-year-old doctrine remains true today.

But some secrets belong to others. 

Crouched in the darkness around a house being targeted on the outskirts of a village in Parwan province, the Afghan Special Forces that Al Jazeera had joined were relying on the secrets of other armies every second. 

From the moment the commander got the call to say the suspect was in place, to the banging on the door by heavily armed soldiers, foreigners were watching every second of the operation. Drones with cameras and infra-red detectors monitor every one of their missions.

Handing a war over to another army is not as easy as replacing one set of soldiers with another. It tests trust, logistics and bank accounts. Nowhere more so than with special operations. 

ISR - Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance - is still largely in the hands of Western militaries here.  When Afghan Special Forces soldiers career out of their bases in heavily armed convoys, they are acting on information provided from higher-ups - who are, in turn, provided the information from foreign allies with sophisticated spying equipment.

A glimpse inside the Afghan army's elite Special Forces

Afghanistan has its own intelligence services, and they can and do track phone calls, but it pales in comparison to the technology being used by the US military.

"If we want them to function well, we have to involve them in target planning and execution, plus transfer ISR capabilities to some degree to them," Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan's former spy chief, told Al Jazeera. His viewpoint has been carved out by years of working side-by-side with the CIA - since the armed uprising against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s; an uprising equipped and enabled by the US intelligence organisation.

"I know we will never get full ISR capability, that's Silicon Valley. But we have to be trusted with some equipment," said Saleh. "For example, you go on an operation and you are fired at. Then the Afghans are totally reliant on the Americans for interception, tactical interception. Without having that tactical capability, they will always - regardless of how motivated, how highly spirited they are - they will be crippled."

During raids by the elite Afghan fighters, it is only their NATO mentors who have the capability and clearance to call in airstrikes if things go wrong.

Al Jazeera asked the Unit Commander, while driving to a night operation, what he would do if they came under attack and didn't have a vehicle of Norwegian Special Forces driving behind him - given that he cannot call in airstrikes. "We would just have to fight our way out," he replied.

Political price

The airstrikes that would be theoretically needed would also have to come from foreign armies' air forces.  Afghanistan has had an air force for almost 90 years, but civil war and a lack of funding has seen it depleted to such an extent that it is not capable of air attacks on Taliban fighter strongholds - as foreign militaries are.

In Kabul, airstrikes are a hot political topic anyway, with President Karzai banning Afghan forces from requesting airstrikes in urban areas. The civilian death toll and resentment they breed makes politicians in the capital fear PR coups for the Taliban.

Our complete Afghanistan coverage

In Afghanistan, the will to hand over the fight from foreign forces to Afghan National Security Forces is clear.  For several years now the "handover" has been on the lips of officials from London to Washington DC and Kabul.

But now the handover is in full swing. In June, NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen stood beside Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a press event on the outskirts of Kabul and declared the official shift of combat duties from foreign forces to Afghans. The Afghans are expected to be conducting every combat mission in the country by the end of 2014. They are already taking on most of the action.

The question remaining is whether or not they will be entirely alone in the field after 2014. Currently, Afghan forces are trained and aided by foreign mentors, helping with tactical decisions, technology and logistics. For the missions on which Al Jazeera joined as observers, three or four Norwegian Special Forces soldiers accompanied the unit.

That back-up, coupled with the ISR capabilities currently being used by the foreigners, will be sorely missed if they disappear after 2014. 

Major Khoshal Sadat, the commander of the Special Forces unit for Kabul and the surrounding provinces, feels that's simply something his troops will have to get used to.

"I think we should get used to it. We will not have those high-technology aircraft and enablers for a longer period," Sadat told Al Jazeera. "There are many ways to deal with those challenges and threats. So we need to be more professional in dealing with the threats with lesser technology, with lesser air support, with less sophisticated intelligence capabilities."

Foreign forces staying?

The question mark hanging over these capabilities is wrapped up in the Bilateral Security Agreement between the US and Afghan Governments. Negotiations have been mired in argument as already fraught relations between the two sides deteriorated to new lows this summer over the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, in June.

While politicians have postured over the terms, the US military remains vocal in its conviction the Afghans will need technical military support for years after the 2014 cut-off point. 

"Afghan forces, at the end of 2014, won't be completely independent," General Joseph F Dunford Jr, Commander of American and Allied Forces in Afghanistan, told The New York Times last month. “Our presence post-2014 is necessary for the gains we have made to date to be sustainable."

His words came just the day before a Pentagon report concluded that post-2014 Afghan security forces "will still require substantial training, advising and assistance - including financial support - to address ongoing shortcomings."

Shortcomings are more often pointed out with regular units of the Afghan security forces than special operations soldiers. Corruption, a lack of proficiency and the well-documented "insider attacks" - where soldiers turn their guns on colleagues - have plagued the regular Afghan army.

Their Special Forces units, known as Crisis Response Units, are the most elite, and most ready to act independently in the field, from the perspective of proficiency and training. This is why their ability to operate post-2014 is so crucial. When it comes to native forces fighting the Taliban, if the Afghan Special Forces cannot do the job, no-one here can.

For a "behind-the-scenes" look at a night-raid with Afghan Special Forces, read Jane Ferguson's latest blog post: A midnight stroll with Afghan commandos

Follow Jane Ferguson on Twitter: @JaneFerguson5

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Al Jazeera
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